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Each year, wealthy countries collectively spend around 178 billion dollars[1] (!!) on Development aid.

Development aid has funded some of the most cost-effective lifesaving programs that have ever been run. Such examples include PEPFAR, the US emergency aids relief programme rolled out at the height of the African aids pandemic, which estimates suggest saved 25 million lives[2] at a cost of some 85 billion[3] ($3400 per life saved, competitive with Givewell’s very best). EAs working with global poverty will know just how difficult it is to achieve high cost effectiveness at these scales.

Development aid has also funded some of the very worst development projects conceived, in some instances causing outright harm to the recipients.

Development aid is spent with a large variety of goals in mind. Climate mitigation projects, gender equality campaigns, and free-trade agreements are all funded by wealthy governments under a single illusory budgetary item: ‘development assistance’.

In short, the scope of aid is enormous and so is the impact that can be had by positively influencing how it is spent. I'm not the only one who thinks so! In January of 2022 Open Philanthropy announced Global Aid Policy as a priority area within its global health and wellbeing portfolio.


In this post I will:

  • Demystify the processes that decide how aid is allocated.
  • Argue that aid policy is neglected (by EAs especially), high in scale, and maybe tractable.
  • Sneakily attempt to make you excited about aid, in preparation for the announcement of a non-profit I’m co-founding.

Who decides how aid is allocated?

When I first dug into development aid, I found the field very opaque and difficult to get an overview of. This made everything seem much more static and difficult to influence, than I now think it is.

Come with me, and I’ll show you how the aid-sausage is made. The explanation tries to capture the grand picture, but each country is different and the explanation is overfit to western democracies.

The aid pipeline:

It all begins with a government decision to spend money on aid. For many countries this decision was formalized in 1970 after a UN resolution was signed between members to spend 0.7% of GNI on official development assistance.[4]

Politicians decide on a national aid strategy

Each country that gives aid will have an official strategy for its aid spending. The strategy lists a number of priorities the government wants to focus on. It is typically re-negotiated and updated once every few years or when a new government takes seat. The agreed upon aid strategy sets a broad direction for the civil service and relevant parliamentary committees in projects they choose to carry out.

The recently released UK aid strategy is a good example of what typical priorities look like:

  1. deliver honest, reliable investment through British Investment Partnerships, building on the UK’s financial expertise and the strengths of the City of London, in line with the Prime Minister’s vision for the Clean Green Initiative
  2. provide women and girls with the freedom they need to succeed, unlocking their future potential, educating girls, supporting their empowerment and protecting them against violence
  3. step up the UK’s life-saving humanitarian work to prevent the worst forms of human suffering around the world. The UK will lead globally for a more effective international response to humanitarian crises
  4. take forward UK leadership on climate change, nature and global health. The strategy will put the UK commitments made during the UK’s Presidency of G7 and COP26, UK global leadership in science and technology, and the UK’s COVID-19 response, at the core of its international development work

The Government passes a national budget

Most elected governments pass a national budget each year, determining how much money should be spent on each category of expense from healthcare to military. One of these categories will typically be ‘official development assistance’.

This category will often be broken into subcategories, which earmark various percentages towards various causes, countries, and organizations. A common budgetary target for many countries is to spend 0.7% of GNI on aid, with some countries giving slightly more and others giving slightly less.

The importance of the national budget varies significantly based on the extent to which it earmarks the aid spending. The 2023 Danish national budget, for example, sets aside 25% of its aid to climate related interventions and 3.6% towards helping Ukraine. Once the yearly budget is approved, it is difficult to change.

Typically the civil service will make a recommendation for how the budget should be allocated, in line with past commitments, ongoing projects and the government’s aid priorities. The government uses this proposal as a starting point, making amendments in line with their political objectives.

The country’s aid agency decides on projects

After the national budget is passed, the parliament passes on the torch to a government aid agency responsible for carrying out the strategy with the available resources.

Multilateral projects

Countries give anywhere from 0 to 70% of their total development budgets to multilateral organizations such as the UN and WHO, who carry out development projects that align with the governments’ strategies.

Depending on the number of strings attached, the multilateral organization largely decides how the money is spent from there.

Bilateral projects

Donor countries also carry out a number of projects that directly attempt to achieve some objective in a recipient country. These projects are referred to as ‘bilateral’ because they only involve the donor and recipient country, and are overseen by the national aid agency itself.

The structure of these projects varies significantly, but often they are carried out in collaboration with either the recipient government or an NGO that is responsible for the day-to-day operations. In order to achieve the objectives set out in the donor country's aid strategy, its national agency will regularly consult the budget and decide on new bilateral projects.

Most governments have a number of developing countries whose governments they have established especially good relations with. Aid and other investments are a way to uphold those relations, but high trust also makes it easier to carry out impactful projects. Countries tend to carry out especially many bilateral projects in countries they work well with, or want to build better relations to.

Projects are implemented

Now that the government has decided on projects to fund, we finally arrive at the stage of actual implementation. This is the step that EA historically has been the most engaged with. Here we can measure the impact of projects, rank them against each other, and say which are more impactful.

What’s important to keep in mind are all of the political decisions that went into deciding on an exact project. If effective altruists identify a different project that would save more lives, but does worse on all the other criteria the government used to decide, we shouldn’t expect the government to change its decision.

Ensuring that each step in the decision-making process becomes better aligned with indiscriminately saving and improving lives is of increasing importance, especially as evidence establishes which interventions do so most effectively.

Scale, Tractability, Neglectednes

Scale

“The scale speaks for itself” - Hans Niemann

178 Billion dollars is a ridiculously high number. There is a broad consensus among experts, think tanks, and implementing partners alike that the cost-effectiveness of aid can be vastly improved.

I expect a lot of people to be reasonably worried that this is a textbook case of getting mugged by scale. “If we capture just 1% of the market, we’ll be rich” is a common sentence to hear from startups doomed to fail. Let’s assume that for some reason you are skeptical of somebody’s chance of influencing the entire world’s aid spending, and focus on just the aid spending of a single small country.

Denmark, with a population of just under six million, alone spends ~$2.7 billion on development aid each year, which is more than enough money to yield a massive impact if spent more cost-effectively.

Tractability

Is influencing the spending of a small country tractable? Hopefully the overview of how aid allocation is decided, should have given you a sense of the many avenues there are to influence aid priorities for the better.

If you’re still not convinced that it’s tractable, let’s look at some case-studies cherry-picked by me to prove that it’s at the very least possible.

The directors of the Norwegian aid agency were recently featured in an article stating their intent to add cash-transfers to Norway’s aid portfolio. This decision was no doubt influenced by the excellent research on cash-transfers done by organizations such as the Center for Global Development, Berkeley’s Center for Effective Global Action, and others.

A grassroots campaign organized by EAs in Switzerland, increased the spending of Zurich on aid from €3m to €8m. That said, another grassroots campaign organized in part by EAs to campaign against UK’s cuts to aid spending, did not succeed. That still yields a 50% success-rate and the UK campaign was argued to have been cost-effective as well despite failing to prevent the cuts.

In 2019 the US aid agency ran a cash-benchmarking experiment in collaboration with GiveDirectly. While one experiment is not going to change much, it shows the world’s largest giver of aid is open to ideas that can increase impact.

The base rate for the success of advocacy is surprisingly high, and important decision-makers are (sometimes) listening to the evidence. Moreover, if government’s weren’t influenced by advocacy, why on earth is every parliament surrounded by lobbyists arguing for why exactly their industry should be free of competition?

Neglectednes

Is affecting aid policy neglected? Most definitely. While there are a few dozen organizations focused on research and advocacy for more cost-effective aid spending, it is a tiny amount in light of the total scope of aid. Similar to how a few dozen AI safety orgs is not nearly enough in light of how fast AI is progressing.

And similar to how many AI safety projects couldn’t exist without EA funding, so are there many aid policy projects that haven’t been possible to do due to a historic lack of funding. The list of projects within aid policy that I think are likely to be cost-effective and fundable is much larger than the number of EAs willing to facilitate them.

A call to action

Development aid is a big deal. It represents one fourth of all giving worldwide[5] and is responsible for saving and improving millions of lives each year. As effective altruists are becoming increasingly ambitious in the scope of interventions we consider, development aid should be making its way onto our radar.

If you’re currently thinking: “someone should fund an org that works with aid policy or something”, then I have good news! That is exactly what my co-founder Jacob and I are doing, and we’re looking forward to announcing the organization along with our pilot project soon.

In the meantime, if you are somebody interested in global development and policy, there has never been a better time to turn that interest into an impactful career. If you’re unsure where to begin, don’t hesitate to send a message, we would love to meet you!

  1. ^

    https://www.oecd.org/dac/financing-sustainable-development/development-finance-standards/official-development-assistance.htm

  2. ^

    https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/f2xEp9RAyA2kSZ2qm/how-many-lives-has-the-u-s-president-s-emergency-plan-for?commentId=JNuZbj2tnHAigPoCX

  3. ^

     https://www.state.gov/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/PEPFAR2021AnnualReporttoCongress.pdf

  4. ^

    https://www.oecd.org/dac/financing-sustainable-development/development-finance-standards/the07odagnitarget-ahistory.htm

  5. ^

     $178b in ODA in 2021 compared to $550b in private philanthropy in 2021 according to https://www.privatebank.citibank.com/newcpb-media/media/documents/insights/Philanthropy-and-global-economy.pdf

Comments23
Sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 7:59 AM

Happy to see that there's a new org getting started in this area. If you can say, who are your initial funders?

One thing I'd like to see you grapple a bit more with is the politicization of official aid. This may seriously constrain an org's ability to influence (1) top-down aid priorities and (2) in-country programme outcomes. This is based on my experience on the ground rather than a rigorous review, so may be wrong or biased in important ways. But it is my impression that official aid programmes are usually designed and implemented with much closer cooperation with and direction from the host government. I think this means that official aid orgs face more impact-political palatibility trade-offs than do NGOs, for example (though NGOs are constrained in other ways).

Another trend I think you should be aware of is the apparent pillaging of aid budgets to fund climate finance commitments. Rich countries have promised to finance projects in lower-income countries to mitigate and adapt to climate change, and pledged that they'll do so by providing additional funding on top of their aid budgets. In reality, though, they're falling well short of those taregets AND many are raising much of the climate finance money by reallocating their aid budgets!

I'd love to see more scrutiny on this decision--for example, some of the folks at CGD are doing God's work by working through tedious aid budget details. It's not at all clear that climate finance projects save more lives than traditional aid projects that are more optimized for health outcomes, so I think this trend is probably very bad compared to a counterfactual of just funding the regular aid budget (and almost certainly very bad against a counterfactual of aid funding + additional climate finance).

At least in the UK context, I think the "pillaging" of aid budgets to fund climate commitments isn't my top concern.

UK aid monies are currently used by the Home Office on rehousing refugees. It looks like we're going to spend more UK aid in the UK than overseas.

Apart from the obvious concern that each pound can do more good in the world's poorest countries, it's actually engendering exactly the kind of waste that aid critics detest. The Home Office has no incentive to use the money cost effectively, because it comes from the FCDO's budget, not theirs.

Thanks Sanjay. I agree in the UK context. I think this is a great example of how every country is very different. Yes England have absolutely routed their overseas aid and might be another good example of a country not to focus on with this kind of advocacy. Which is sad because until recently UKAID had some pretty good programs.

Thank you for your thoughtful comment Stephen!

We are incubated through Charity Entrepreneurship, and have gotten our seed funding through their network.

When deciding on our pilot project, we did briefly look into the cost-effectiveness of climate mitigation projects funded by development aid and it was difficult to conclude much with high confidence. While it won't be our initial focus, we would be very excited to see increased measurement and the creation of better metrics for aid projects related to climate change and mitigation.

Traditional aid has benefited tremendously from the increased focus on measurement and evaluation in recent decades. I think it's especially important we don't forget the lessons learned as we start to carry out aid projects in new domains.

Hey Mathias, I've work in development here in Northern Uganda for 10 years, and I think this is a fantastic idea for an org. I love your examples and I have no doubt that this issue is tractable, although I've failed in my own feeble local efforts here in Northern Uganda ;). Here's a couple of comments off the top of my head :). I could go on and on but  it's too much  for a comment .

  • My experience has been that most government aid projects are terrible, either doing harm or very little good at all.  The worst are government-to-government aid, where unfortunately most of the aid money goes as spelled out well in Dambisa Moyo's "Dead Aid" book. Here in Uganda there are some great high impact exceptions such as USAID's Pepfar, providing free malaria commodities, and some results based healthcare projects (although these can go both ways) but they are exceptions not the rule.  

    We currently have GIZ (German development  agency with an unfortunate name) spending millions here in Northern Uganda doing lot's of close to zero impact projects while causing potential harm while they are at it. Their projects are so painfully bad it sometimes makes me feel physically sick, and I've failed completely in my few efforts to talk to GIZ members about what they do. I don't think local lobbying is necessarily very useful because no-one working on the ground wants to even consider the possibility that what they are doing here in Uganda might be useless or harmful, and they don't make many decisions about what they do. This kind of advocacy  then needs to happen at a higher level. I understand EA is fairly active in Berlin, and this is the kind of thing that could well be lobbied on successfully. 
     
  •  My experience here in Northern Uganda is that most climate mitigation funding  is ineffectual,  with a surprising amount of it  just funnelled into corrupt official's pockets and a lot of the rest spent on meaningless trainings and meetings. Like Stephen said much of it would be far better spent just on development initiatives - that will be better climate mitigation than the current useless projects. Redirecting he 100 billion of  climate funding could be a GREAT area for advocacy, perhaps the most important at the moment. I might write a post on this even...
     
  • I think a key factor to consider will be which governments might be willing to be nudged in the right direction. My instinct is that USAID might be a waste of time to lobby with their rigid policies more concerned with politics and accountability than impact (although they would claim otherwise), while you might be able to get more traction in European countries. 

Can't believe your Hans Neiman joke as well. About the most niche joke I've ever seen lol what percent of people here will get it haha love it!

Keen to discuss this more!

We currently have GIZ (German development agency with an unfortunate name) spending millions here in Northern Uganda doing lot's of close to zero impact projects while causing potential harm while they are at it. Their projects are so painfully bad it sometimes makes me feel physically sick, and I've failed completely in my few efforts to talk to GIZ members about what they do.

I'd be very curious to hear more about this, in particular specific projects and how they have failed or caused harm. Or is it basically all of the projects in this list?

For a start, read that list and see if you can find even a handful of initiatives that seem likely to have a reasonable impact. Most of these projects are not clear, potentially high impact interventions but usually a bunch of trainings, meetings,  meaningless "capacity building" of government staff.

This one here really made me angry https://www.giz.de/en/worldwide/42196.html

"It advises policy-makers in East African countries on the opportunities offered by carbon markets and carbon pricing instruments. In addition, the project provides expert and technical advice to government agencies on updating NDCs and long-term climate strategies....   In addition to this, workshops and networking meetings provide information on Article 6 and market-based approaches in the region."

Uganda is run by a dictator who's Army  and police continue to oversee the pillaging of their few remaining forests for charcoal, and here  GIZ is pouring more money into those same thieve's pockets (as reported below).
 

https://www.independent.co.ug/black-gold-report-pins-security-for-protecting-charcoal-cartels/ 

https://www.monitor.co.ug/uganda/news/national/security-forces-aiding-charcoal-trade-report-3367774


Obviously I only have encountered GIZ first hand here in Northern Uganda. Just to throw one concrete example in here , there's one particularly bad ongoing project here on rubbish collection (much more mundane than charcoal cartels!). I'd hardly call rubbish collection the biggest problem we have here in the first place. GIZ's mad approach was to try to get poor people here in the city to pay a fee and bring their rubbish to collection points - basically trying to conjure up huge behaviour change overnight which of course was never going to work. We even had one of their staff come to our door and announce the new program - which of course never happened.  Who here is going to pay to bring rubbish to a collection point when they don't even see it as a problem?

And as part of the project they might have spent half a million dollars on a handful of German imported rubbish collection trucks for local government, only for them to get seized by a debt collector apparently because of some phony debt probably trumped up from inside the local government itself.

They also do a bunch of water accessibility stuff here in Gulu town which is highly dubious from an inequality perspective, as it favours only rich people in town who already are doing OK, and neglects the 80% of poorer Ugandans who live outside of town.

You'd think these kind of cliche aid mistakes would be a thing of the past, but unfortunately not.

Often GIZ  projects don't  even make it make sense on paper, forget even about the disasters while  implementing them. Read this garbage, especially the "Approach" section. What really even is their approach it's certainly not clear t me?  https://www.giz.de/en/worldwide/59817.html

It's really sad, imagine the good they could do if they instead just gave all that money they are spending driving around in fancy cars and feeding rich corrupt government officials to poor people.

Thanks, that sounds quite bad.

Post summary (feel free to suggest edits!):
Wealthy countries spend a collective $178B on development aid per year - 25% of all giving worldwide. Some aid projects have been cost-effective on a level with Givewell’s top recommendations (eg. PEPFAR), while others have caused outright harm.

Aid is usually distributed via a several step process:

  1. Decide to spend money on aid. Many countries signed a 1970 UN resolution to spend 0.7% of GNI on official development assistance.
  2. Government decides a general strategy / principles.
  3. Government passes a budget, assigning $s to different aid subcategories.
  4. The country’s aid agency decides on projects. Sometimes this is donating to intermediaries like the UN or WHO, sometimes it’s direct.
  5. Projects are implemented.

This area is large scale, tractability is unsure but there are many pathways and some past successes (eg. a grassroots EA campaign in Switzerland increased funding, and the US aid agency ran a cash-benchmarking experiment with GiveDirectly), and few organisations focus on this area compared to the scale.

The author and their co-founder have been funded to start an organization in this area. Get in touch if you’re interested in Global Development and Policy.

(If you'd like to see more summaries of top EA and LW forum posts, check out the Weekly Summaries series.)

Zoe, this summary looks pretty good to us! The only change I would suggest is changing "grassroots EA campaign in Switzerland redirected funding" to "grassroots EA campaign in Switzerland increased funding", as the result of the campaign was an increase to the overall development cooperation budget in Zurich.

Thanks!

Edited, thanks :)

[anonymous]1y8
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Absolutely agree that development aid is very important and that a lot of the money is not spent on very good projects. Glad to see that the thread also notes that some of this is inevitable because major donors have many different competing priorities.

I look forward to hearing more about how this organization will be different from others which are already thinking about aid effectiveness. I think there's definitely a huge problem here and space for a new approach. 

I think this thread might be overestimating the tractability of this problem... Aid effectiveness definitely isn't a new topic - there have been lots of lobbying efforts, Paris agreements, Accra agenda. etc. Organizations like Centre for Global Development have been looking at these issues for a long time and obviously there are lots of researchers and academics in this space. 

In my experience development agencies are slow to update their practices (but quicker to organize interminably long workshops about updating practices). E.g. we've known for some time that cash transfers are an effective way of doing humanitarian aid in many/most contexts - and we still see that they are not the common way of doing things.

Great points Finn. Interested to know your background as well ;)!

In my opinion smaller country development offices might be a lot easier to shift than the bigger ones. You could well be right that the OP and enthusiastic people like myself are overestimating  the tractability.

I agree there are a lot of academics and researchers in this space, but that work doesn't usually lead to action. I would argue that the Paris agreement and Accra agenda were more about how countries should work together to deliver aid, and less about what aid money should actually be spent n.

Could you give an example of an organisation which has a primary role of lobbying for better evidence based use of aid? 

If I look at CGD's impact report for this year, the had no numerical assessment of their progres, and their stated achievements are
- Increasing the number of women peacekeepers
- Increasing ID cards for development
- Maximising the benefits of migration
- Changing the conversation on China's development debt
- Advance market commitments for pharmeceuticals

Among those I would only consider the advance market comitments for pharmecuticals and perhaps ID cards are likely to be high impact intervention sfor the world's poorest. I found it interesting that the Center for Effective Altruism is one of their funders.

As a reply to your comments above

"Dambisa Moyo (who worked for the World Bank for 2 years - before going to Goldman Sachs) is one view on how aid effectiveness... but I think it's fair to say the consensus is that govt ownership is generally seen as a GOOD thing in aid effectiveness literature. "

Dambisa Moyo isn't against all aid (a common misconception), just against direct government to government aid. She seems to not mind NGOs so much. Yes you are correct that government ownership is generally seen as a good thing in aid effectiveness literature. I disagree with this consensus, at least I disagree that aid money should pass through government hands. Of course this would be the best approach in theory, and is a self serving opinion if you want to keep your job as a diplomat or aid practitioner. Unfortunately in practise it fails over and over again. The best  Aid projects I have seen, work in conjunction with government systems while not actually giving government money or full control. These kind of projects include PEPFAR, Mosquito net distribution, cash transfers to refugees, building schools (underrated intervention).

"In my experience development agencies are slow to update their practices (but quicker to organize interminably long workshops about updating practices). E.g. we've known for some time that cash transfers are an effective way of doing humanitarian aid in many/most contexts - and we still see that they are not the common way of doing things."

100% agree with that, well put.

Keep in mind I'm very biased living and working here in Uganda while trying to keep a broader perspective.

[anonymous]1y8
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Hi Nick,

I want to clarify I'm positive about the idea too - I think there's definitely space for this. But I think there will be more impact if it compliments existing efforts in this area and thinks hard about what is really neglected. 

I've worked in development for about 10 years, some experience with evaluation of grass-roots projects but mainly working implementing projects funded by governments/donors. I try to stay anonymous on here, but I've lived and worked in Central, East Africa and South Asia for about 7 years. Never worked in Uganda. 

CGD has a few work streams on aid effectiveness, I went to a presentation on their Quoda index a while back: https://www.cgdev.org/quoda-2021 I would recommend anything Owen Barder has written on this topic.

I think the examples in CGD's report are where they have recommended things, and then actually seen them happen. This is really quite unusual in terms of research/policy impact. 

They've definitely done lots more work that hasn't necessarily led to neat case studies of change. For instance, they host the IDSI who look at making cost-effective decisions in health for LMICs: https://www.idsihealth.org/our-strategy/   I think it's true that CGD doesn't try to compare education and health or climate and governance... but they definitely have thought hard about cost-effectiveness within health for instance.

We may be talking past each other but in my experience - diplomats and aid practitioners often dislike govt to govt direct aid (budget support) because it cuts them out... it gives govts the chance to choose their own priorities rather than having them dictated by donors/external experts.

I think you could be right that smaller country funders might be easier to influence. Generally in my experience the Scandinavian donors do better projects & are able to focus more on poverty rather than being pushed around by political priorities/flashy ineffective projects.

Thanks for your comment.

Thanks so much Finn again, a lot of wisdom there and good links to look at. ISDI in particular looks like a great initiative and I didn't know about it!

You might be right that we are talking past each other n the government to government aid thing given that I think it's a complete disaster and should stop, while you understandably seem to agree with the development norm that government ownership is part of aid best practise. This is definitely off topic a bit, but  I wanted to clarify that  I am not against govt. to govt. aid for any petty reason that it cuts anyone out, but for a lot of other reasons.

  1. Evidence of failure. (The classic Dambisa Moyo) Govt. to govt. aid has miserably failed for 50 years in Africa. Most development successes have been in either in partnership with govt. or despite governments. Why go against the evidence because it seems right?
  2. Corruption 
  3. There is a strong norm that we should give governments the power to prioritise what they want. But the reality is that most low income governments don't care much about the poorest of the poor (evidenced by both rhetoric and lack of action), so they won't prioritise them with the money you give them. So why give them money to prioritise other things the aid was not intended for in the first place?
  4. For undemocratic countries specifically, when you give aid to those governments you prop up the stranglehold of dictatorships. This can cause more harm than the good you can potentially do.
     

I know these are all fairly classic arguments, but I still believe that they stand. Don't feel  you have to reply by the way, just wanted to get it out there ;)

I think this thread might be overestimating the tractability of this problem... Aid effectiveness definitely isn't a new topic ...

As far as I can tell (as the author of the Charity Entrepreneurship report) driving short term changes to aid budgets and spending patterns is tractable, but driving long-term improvements are much less tractable. It is an inherently non-sticky area of policy where successive governments tend to rewrite the rulebook.

If this hypothesis is correct it explains the trend you identify here. It also suggest that work in this space is limited as improvements to aid quality may only last a few years. Charity Entrepreneurship still considered it high value despite this limitation.

See: https://3394c0c6-1f1a-4f86-a2db-df07ca1e24b2.filesusr.com/ugd/26c75f_9fabb713c4c245f4beab12d0b0ca491d.pdf

[anonymous]1y1
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Thanks for sharing. Looks a very interesting report. I think very plausible that this is a non-sticky area of policy... or perhaps that there are strong forces which tend to make donors revert to a less-effective equilibrium. 

From an OG aid-industry insider:

People have been trying to fix development aid since the 80s, and failing miserably. The reality is that very little development aid is effective. Govt-to-govt aid is largely mismanaged and wasted. Targeted aid projects are often ill-conceived. Much of aid, especially US aid, is tied to the donor country's political aims. Most people who work for large aid organizations such as the UN/UNICEF/Save the Children/etc. are jaded and mainly care about advancing their own career and their own kids' schooling.

Most people I've met in development have a big ego, think they are so smart, write complex, bureaucratic analyses and reports, and pretend that their work is effective.

What the underdeveloped world needs (and wants) is business and investment, not aid. Forget about aid and start a business in Africa, or working with Africans instead.

The idea of starting an EA-inspired lobbying group or think tank makes me want to throw up. It is only adding to the bloated, fake do-gooder, ultimately self-interested bureaucratic swamp.

I've been curious about foreign aid for a while, but never delved into researching it. I would be curious to follow more posts or a newsletter on it . Some questions off the top of my head:

  • how effective (i.e. $ per DALY/QALY) is x country's aid budget in y year, how does this compare to givewells best interventions?

  • what does the talent pipeline look like for foreign aid, who works in these departments/orgs?

  • what underline assumptions or biases influence foreign aid?

  • case studies of projects done well. Case studies of projects done poorly.

Also, curious if you have any book recommendations?

Hey Elliot nice one!

Government aid projects almost never consider impact the way effective altruists do in terms of DALYs, and so comparing interventions is very very difficult.

One of the biggest problems is that most aid is "Government to government" aid, and so either gets eaten by corruption or is pumped into extremely inefficient government programs. An example of better aid might be money given to the Global vaccine alliance (GAVI) to fund vaccination programs.

A book I really like (although a bit old) is "Dead Aid" by Dambisa Moyo a Zambian born economist who worked for the world bank. She argues that government to government aid does more harm than good, which I agree with. I don't agree with everything in the book but it gives a good overview of aid and the problems with it. 

[anonymous]1y4
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Agree that govt aid projects don't consider impact in the same way.

Dambisa Moyo (who worked for the World Bank for 2 years - before going to Goldman Sachs) is one view on how aid effectiveness... but I think it's fair to say the consensus is that govt ownership is generally seen as a GOOD thing in aid effectiveness literature. 

https://www.cgdev.org/blog/how-much-foreign-aid-reaches-foreign-governments

Great!

I think that the allocation of government aid doesn't get enough attention from effective altruists. Government aid budgets are an enormous pool of money and often don't seem to be spent in an evidence-based way. Huge potential for positive change here.

Congratulations! Looking forward to seeing where this goes.